Are Good Bosses Nearing Extinction?

Managers who treat their engineers fairly seem increasingly hard to find

By Dirk Willard, Contributing Editor

Too many bosses would throw someone under the bus to make their lives easier.

“Willard, Willard!” It was the thundering voice of Frank, my boss at the U.S. Air Force’s Rocket Propulsion Development Laboratory. I heard his heavy footsteps, the door flew open, and then he asked: “What did you do?” I braced myself. The day before I had received x-rays of a solid-rocket test motor with voids. A motor like that is dangerous. So, I told our quality control manager at the vendor’s plant not to ship. Yet, the motor arrived at our dock about the time a vice president of the vendor called. He told me our quality control manager had accepted the motor. I replied that wasn’t true. “Are you calling me a liar?” he bellowed. After a pause, I responded, “I guess so.” He belligerently said he would call my boss. “You’ll never work in the rocket industry again,” he declared.

I explained to Frank what happened and, to my surprise, he quietly listened. Then, he had me follow him to the office. “Close the door,” he instructed. My heart was in my throat. Frank clicked on the intercom and told his assistant to call the vice president. Next, the most remarkable thing happened. “Listen,” Frank warned him, “if you ever threaten one of my people again, you’ll never get another research contract with us — ever!”

Now, that’s a boss you’d die for.

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Sadly, too many bosses I’ve had would throw someone under the bus to make their lives easier.

So, when considering a new position, try to do a little research on the company leadership. That’s what I did when I was under consideration for a director-of-engineering position. My online investigation showed several lawsuits filed by past employees, a number of run-ins with the public, and one fatality OSHA was investigating. When I met the owner, he stressed the firm needed structure.

Something bothered me during the interview; I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The next morning I realized what it was. Nobody could make it as director without being a trusted friend of the owner. Even then, engineers quickly would learn to bypass the director. The owner wants to check every detail. There’s a contest for his attention. Within a month, the owner would wonder why he hired the director. This type of leadership resembles a wolf pack with an alpha male and a lot of betas; wolf pack leadership isn’t necessarily all bad — it depends on the alpha. Anyway, I told the company I didn’t see myself in the director role but offered to work as a consultant to help them build the structure they needed to establish quality control over their design process.

Years earlier, I worked for Mike at an inorganic chemicals company. Although Mike was an easy-going manager, his office was immaculate. He solved a problem and put the solution in a file drawer. That’s how he liked his people to work. He provided handholding for new graduates but not for experienced engineers. For veterans, he simply kicked off a new assignment with a sit-down meeting and then expected updates at milestones. Mike had been the goalie on his college’s hockey team and let other managers know it. There was an understanding: don’t mess with Mike’s mob. On the other hand, if you screwed up you could expect an interrogation. Mike was fair; he was no-nonsense and professional. Tom took over from Mike and the team disintegrated. That’s the trouble with forceful personalities: they’re hard to replace.

What did Tom do wrong? No one expected him to mimic Mike’s persona. However, he didn’t strive to develop a strong sense of belonging to the group. For an outsider like Tom, who came from another plant, fitting in always is a delicate affair. Unfortunately, Tom concentrated on making friends with upper managers. This may be a politically sound idea but it quickly created the impression that he was indifferent to those of us in his group — that we just were tools, helping him on his climb up the corporate ladder. We responded by polishing our resumes.

dirk.jpgDIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. He recently won recognition for his Field Notes column from the ASBPE. Chemical Processing is proud to have him on board. You can e-mail him at

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